Jim Curtis – Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984

Jim Curtis’s Rock Eras: Interpretations Of Music And Society, 1954-1984 is a unique study which I think deserves more attention than it has received. Strongly influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s “Laws of the Media” and its postulations of a continuous cycle of enhancement/ obsolescence/retrieval, Curtis examines popular music’s role in mirroring and influencing American cultural history between 1954 and 1984. While Curtis shows an intuitive grasp of cultural theory (he eschews most of its jargon), he avoids the common assumption of many cultural theorists that artists are merely passive conduits of social tensions. Rather he examines the confluence of social context and individual temperament in evaluating a slew of artists ranging from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, all the while examining the music against the backdrop of quintessentially American concepts such as the covenant and the frontier. . . . The sheer breadth of musical styles addressed is impressive, and in many ways I find Curtis’s study a more thoughtful and penetrating history of rock than the accepted standard, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History Of Rock & Roll. – Edward Macan, Rocking The Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, pp. 5-6

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And who advises the young lover to shop around? Well, Mama does, that’s who. She is the cost-conscious head of a black household, and her prominence, an innovative feature of Motown lyrics, expresses the situation of many black households where there is an absent father. It’s also Mama who says, “You Can’t Hurry Love,” which seems like an adaptation of advice abut frying chicken. – Jim Curtis, Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984, p.99

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One of the most overlooked guitarists in rock/funk history, Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel.

One of the most overlooked guitarists in rock/funk history, Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel.

The gold standard for book reviews, at least in my humble opinion, is Matt Taibbi’s vicious, pitiless, beautiful review of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat (since I’ve linked to it, read the whole thing even though I’ll be quoting it a bit here at the beginning). What makes Taibbi’s work so powerful is his grasp of Friedman’s mediocrity in all the parts that make up the horrible whole, The World Is Flat. Taibbi begins with the low-hanging fruit of Friedman’s constant poorly mixed metaphors, then goes on to write:

In politics, this allows America to invade a castrated Iraq in self-defense. In the intellectual world, Friedman is now probing the outer limits of this trick’s potential, and it’s absolutely perfect, a stroke of genius, that he’s choosing to argue that the world is flat. The only thing that would have been better would be if he had chosen to argue that the moon was made of cheese. And that’s basically what he’s doing here. The internet is speeding up business communications, and global labor markets are more fluid than ever. Therefore, the moon is made of cheese. That is the rhetorical gist of The World Is Flat. It’s brilliant. Only an America-hater could fail to appreciate it.

This is all by way of introduction. The most relevant part for this review is Taibbi’s discussion of what he calls “the genesis of the title”.

The book’s genesis is conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani causally mutters to Friedman: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrasethe level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: “The playing field is being leveled.” What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!

This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting–ironically, as it were–with Columbus’s discovery that the world is round.

I bought and read Macan’s Rocking the Classics when it first came out, back in 1997. From the literature review, I eventually purchased Allan F. Moore’s Rock: The Primary Text, a book that encouraged me to learn a bit more about music theory and analysis if I was going to try and say something intelligent about the interrelationships of music, theology, and Christian worship. While I was wary about the whole “Marshall McLuhan” business in Macan’s recommendation, I thought his description of the contents interesting enough. Having received an Amazon.com gift card last week fo my birthday, I ordered a copy.

I’m so glad I ordered a used copy that cost me only $0.98.

Like Taibbi’s note that Friedman somehow manages always to screw up his metaphors (sharks are spouting, herd animals are hunting, a level playing field morphs to a flat world, that kind of thing) as an indication of just how awful reading Friedman’s book turned out to be, so, too I offered above the last sentence of Curtis’s book that I read. It was the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back. While Curtis’s book is nearly thirty years old (published originally in 1987), there is still no excuse – other than crass bigotry or thoughtlessness – to refer to various people as “a Jew” (Al Jolson),  “a black” (name your poison, from Chuck Berry to various Motown artists), or to write about the rise of teen heart-throb fake singers like Fabian or Bobby Darin in terms limited only to their ethnicity, rather than note the ongoing place of mob influence in show business. I suppose Bowling Green State University Popular Press has some responsibility for the steady drip of mindless insults and racial slurs; there are supposed to bee editors, after all, somewhere in the process.

While it might seem banal to say we need to set these to one side – after all, again, it was 1987, and perhaps my sensitivity to these kinds of things has increased over 28 years – we do need to do so to get to the mediocre heart of this book. As I said, the whole Marshall McLuhan business had me wary. McLuhan was a Canadian social commentator who, apparently, discovered that television had changed the patterns of social and cultural life in the West. He thought the best way to talk about these changes was through the arbitrary and nonsensical introduction of “binaries” because it’s once always easier either to have two things oppose one another or work together to create something else rather than to look at social and cultural phenomena and absorb and describe it before venturing toward the dangerous space of theory.

Curtis follows McLuhan right down to the arbitrariness of the “binaries”, all the while believing he has offered a unique interpretation of social, cultural, and musical events when he notes that Elvis Presley’s singing style owed as much to Dean Martin and his Pentecostal upbringing as it did Arthur Cruddup. McLuhan writes several pages on Chuck Berry without once mentioning that Berry’s first hit record for Chess Records, “Maybelline”, was nothing more than the reworking of a country-western song. Curtis mentions that many of Berry’s original listeners thought Berry had musical roots in country music. He doesn’t go any further with it, though. That this might be an important piece of social and cultural information doesn’t warrant discussion. Curtis has already decided to talk about Chuck Berry as an innovative guitar player and song writer without once noting that even Berry’s guitar playing was little more than the extension of things country western guitarists were doing. Certainly as a performer Berry was exciting to watch, although his performance owed as much to T-Bone Walker as it did the sexual innuendo involved with playing a guitar (not a word about this little bit of social and cultural information).

While excited by technology, whether it’s the invention of the electric microphone in the 1920’s or the electric guitar in that same decade, Curtis doesn’t have much at all to say about the socioeconomic conditions that forced, say, the small independent record labels to operate as little more than shoe-string pirate operations. While Curtis mentions Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” (the song many scholars say is the first true rock and roll song), he doesn’t talk at all about Ike Turner traveling the South both as an A&R man as well as doing quick recording gigs, pressing maybe a couple thousand copies of the records, and selling them out of the trunk as he went. These are all important parts of the story of the rise of rock and roll, yet Curtis doesn’t talk about them. Why? Because, like McLuhan, Curtis is already wedded to all those binaries, to those weird cycles of the music that all sorts of people, including Geoffrey Ward, et.al. in Rock Of Ages. Ward and his co-writers do a far better job linking the complexities of race, the complexities of the record business, and the complexities of social, religious, and cultural pressure both on the larger audience for the new music as well as the performers than Curtis does with his binaries.

I pushed myself as far as page 99 in Curtis’s book because . . . well, I usually don’t like to give up reading something even if it’s poorly written, passes off banalities as insights, and declares a theoretical model describes a phenomenon that no one had discovered, all the while not noticing that others have not only noticed it, but written about it far more coherently and comprehensively; I could wade through the bramble and muck of mediocrity for one payoff: I would know how not to go about doing something.

It was that steady drip of racialized and stereotyped comments, however, that did me in. Rock Eras is not a bad book. It’s just a bit of a nothingburger with thoughtless insulting comments interspersed to keep reminding the reader just how bad it is.

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Comments are welcome, as long as they apply to issues rather than individuals. Don't make me break out the Benevolent Banhammer Of Love

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